Baffert takes aim at record-tying sixth Kentucky Derby win

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The pain of seeing Cavonnier get beat by a nose in his first Kentucky Derby nearly kept trainer Bob Baffert from returning to Churchill Downs.

He figured he would never again have a horse good enough to win on the first Saturday in May.

A year later, though, he won the Derby with Silver Charm and again the next year with Real Quiet. Since the mid-1990s, Baffert has won five Kentucky Derbies and two Triple Crowns while becoming the face of horse racing.

“The Kentucky Derby is still the one,” Baffert said, standing outside his barn in front of a green-and-white sign freshly updated with the names of his Derby and Triple Crown winners. “I could win the Derby and just go home, that kind of race it is.”

He will have three chances to make history Saturday.

Baffert saddles Game Winner, Improbable and Roadster in the 145th Derby. None is the early favorite. That status belongs to Omaha Beach, another California horse that is trained by Richard Mandella, Baffert’s next-door neighbor at Santa Anita.

Game Winner and Improbable already have losses to Omaha Beach this year.

A sixth victory by Baffert would tie him with Ben Jones for most in Derby history.

“Ben Jones, the golfer?” Baffert joked.

Nope.

“Plain Ben” Jones trained six Derby winners between 1938 and 1952. Jones and Baffert are among four trainers who have won the race four times.

Baffert equaled Jones’ feat of back-to-back Derby winners in 1997-98. He could do it again Saturday, having won last year with Justify, the colt that went on to give Baffert his second Triple Crown triumph.

“I hate thinking about things because then I feel like I’m getting super jinxed,” said the trainer who once got spooked at the sight of a black cat crossing his path on the backside of Churchill Downs.

Baffert has had three Derby starters in the same year twice before. In 2006, his entries finished ninth, 16th and 17th. In 1999, his horses were fourth, fifth and 11th.

“There’s nothing more exciting in the Derby than when you turn for home and your horses are in contention,” the 66-year-old said. “You just want to be proud that your horses show up.”

Baffert knew he was bringing the best horse to the Derby with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify last year. He hasn’t talked up his current trio the same way.

“It’s sort of wide-open,” he said about the 20-horse field.

Game Winner has the strongest resume of Baffert’s entries. He was last year’s champion 2-year-old male and won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. The colt lost last month’s Rebel Stakes by a nose to Omaha Beach.

“He’s tough, he’s gritty. Coming to the Derby, you want a horse that’s resilient,” Baffert said. “He’s ready for a big effort.”

Improbable finished second to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby.

Roadster has overcome the most obstacles, having undergone throat surgery last year and quarter cracks in his hooves this year, similar to a human breaking a fingernail near the cuticle.

“I knew he was something really special,” said Baffert, who first touted the colt to TMZ.

The celebrity website’s camera crew caught Baffert outside a trendy West Hollywood restaurant last year.

He gets stopped in airports by people who recognize him by his white hair. His horses are routinely overbet simply because he trains them.

“I used to be the horse guy,” he said. “Now they know me by Baffert, so I’ve come a long way.”

When asked by strangers if he has won the Kentucky Derby, he does not like to say how many times. Perhaps because he still cannot believe the answer is five.

“I’m going in there like I’m trying to win my first Derby,” he said.

Irad Ortiz sets single-season record with 77th stakes win

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NEW YORK – Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. earned his record 77th single-season North American stakes victory when he guided Dr B to victory in the $200,000 Go for Wand at Aqueduct.

The 30-year-old native of Puerto Rico broke the old mark of 76 set by the late Hall of Fame rider Garrett Gomez in 2007.

“This is great. Amazing feeling,” said Ortiz, Jr., who won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey from 2018-20. “Gomez did it in 2007 and he was a great rider, one of the best in the game. I’m so happy just to be a part of this. I love this sport.”

Ortiz Jr. won the Belmont Stakes with Mo Donegal in June to go with Breeders’ Cup victories in the Juvenile, Filly & Mare Sprint and Sprint. He also earned nine other Grade 1 wins in New York, including Life Is Good in the Woodward and Whitney and Nest in the Alabama and Coaching Club Oaks. He won riding titles at Belmont’s spring-summer meet and Saratoga’s summer meet.

Ortiz Jr. leads North American riders with 304 overall victories this year. His purse earnings totaled over $35.8 million going into Saturday’s races, which already surpassed his single-season record of $34.1 million in 2019.

Appeals court strikes down federal horseracing rules act

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NEW ORLEANS — Congress unconstitutionally gave too much power to a nonprofit authority it created in 2020 to develop and enforce horseracing rules, a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled Friday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, or HISA, is “facially unconstitutional.”

The authority created by the act was meant to bring uniform policies and enforcement to horseracing amid doping scandals and racetrack horse deaths. But the 5th Circuit – in two rulings issued Friday – ruled in favor of opponents of the act in lawsuits brought by horseracing associations and state officials in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

The Federal Trade Commission has the ultimate authority to approve or reject HISA regulations, but it can’t modify them. And the authority can reject proposed modifications.

Three 5th Circuit judges agreed with opponents of the act – including the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and similar groups in multiple states – that the setup gave too much power to the nongovernmental authority and too little to the FTC.

“A cardinal constitutional principle is that federal power can be wielded only by the federal government. Private entities may do so only if they are subordinate to an agency,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel that ruled in the Texas case.

The same panel, which also included judges Carolyn Dineen King and Kurt Engelhardt, cited the Texas ruling in a separate order in favor of horseracing interests and regulators challenging HISA in a different case.

The chair of the horseracing authority’s board of directors said it would ask for further court review. Friday’s ruling could be appealed to the full 5th Circuit court of the Supreme Court.

“If today’s ruling were to stand, it would not go into effect until January 10, 2023 at the earliest,” Charles Scheeler said in an email. “We are focused on continuing our critical work to protect the safety and integrity of Thoroughbred racing, including the launch of HISA’s Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program on January 1, 2023.”

The ruling was criticized by Marty Irby, executive director of the Animal Wellness Action organization. “Over the course of three Congresses, the most brilliant legal minds on Capitol Hill addressed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s constitutionality and ultimately decided that the Federal Trade Commission’s limited oversight was sufficient,” Irby said in an email.

Among the subjects covered by the authority’s rules and enforcement were jockey safety (including a national concussion protocol), the riding crop and how often riders can use it during a race, racetrack accreditation, and the reporting of training and veterinary records.

Animal rights groups, who supported the law, pointed to scandals in the industry involving medication and the treatment of horses.

Duncan wrote that in declaring HISA unconstitutional, “we do not question Congress’s judgment about problems in the horseracing industry. That political call falls outside our lane.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, hailed the ruling on Twitter, calling HISA a “federal takeover of Louisiana horse racing.”